In addition to the debate between Checker and me on national standards, the Big Issues in Education series that the Wall Street Journal is publishing features a variety of great debates. I just saw that one of those is a debate between our very own Greg Forster and Mark Kantrowitz about college financial aid. Here’s a taste:
Without some form of aid, the cost of a four-year college is beyond the reach of most low-income families. Even taking grants into account, the average annual yearly cost is more than one-half the average annual family income for low-income students….
Millions of students never even enter college due to their own limited financial resources, inadequate need-based grants or both. In a 2006 report by a congressional advisory committee on student financial aid, only 54% of college-qualified low-income students enrolled in a four-year college and 21% in a two-year college. For high-income students, the comparable figures were 84% and 11%.
Claims that there is no gap in college access for low-income students are based on a flawed analysis that understates college readiness and overstates enrollment figures. College-readiness figures like the ones my opponent cites look only at 17-year-old high-school graduates who satisfy minimal entrance requirements for four-year colleges. But people also qualify who are older than 17, some of whom didn’t graduate from high school but possess the high-school equivalency credential known as the GED.
In reality, more than half of low-income college-ready students don’t enroll in four-year bachelor’s degree programs because they can’t afford the cost.
For 60 years, we have been pouring more and more money into collegiate financial aid with little or no regard to the academic merit of the recipients. Unlimited, unmerited college financing has produced skyrocketing tuition rates, lower academic standards, and runaway spending on collegiate administration and services that deliver no visible academic benefits….
Proponents of need-based aid cite studies suggesting there is a big gap in college-enrollment rates between low-income and high-income students with the same qualifications. But those studies are misleading because the qualifications they cite don’t match up with the real entrance requirements of colleges. They omit transcript requirements, for example, like numbers of years of English and math.
In fact, virtually all low-income students who aren’t going to college aren’t qualified to go to college. Empirical research by myself and others has consistently found that the number of high-school graduates who meet the academic requirements to attend a traditional four-year college and the number of students actually entering traditional four-year colleges is almost identical.
The problem for low-income students isn’t a lack of aid—it’s a lack of quality education at the K-12 level. Almost the only way to expand educational opportunity to the truly needy is through academic, not financial, reform. Too many kids at the K-12 level never have a chance to become college-ready….
Of course colleges jack up their tuition. They’re capturing the subsidies we provide. Like any other service provider, colleges will raise prices until the market clears. Flooding the market with subsidies gives customers more purchasing power. The market clears at a higher price.
But higher tuition is only the obvious symptom; putting all that financial aid on the table with no connection to academic merit creates a huge incentive to dumb down academics. Colleges can pick up a lot of free money by relaxing admission standards. This helps explain why more than a third of freshmen now take remedial courses.
And since colleges no longer compete on price, they compete on amenities. That’s why we see so many new buildings and services on campuses, but so little improvement in educational results. From 1993 to 2007, according to a study by Jay Greene, an education professor at University of Arkansas, college administrative spending per student grew at twice the rate of instructional spending.